Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

The Walrus

Aunt Sally, my aunt

Blair slipped off the TUC's hook, but the PFI scandal won't go away says The Walrus

It must have come as quite a relief to Tony Blair when he found out he had escaped the wrath of the TUC by the skin of his teeth. All the build-up to his much awaited speech on private sector involvement in the public services suggested he was in for a richly deserved spanking at the unions' annual conference. Almost from the minute the general election was over with, one union leader after another had tried in vain to get a straight answer out of the government over its plans--any more prevarication and they were not going to be happy bunnies.

In the end we never got to hear what Blair intended to say because of what had happened in New York. But we did get a very good inkling of the likely reception a day earlier, when Patricia Hewitt got up for her speech and went down like a lead balloon. Not normally prone to hiding her light under a bushel, Hewitt 'conspicuously avoided the vexed issue of private sector involvement in schools and hospitals', according to the Financial Times, and even so was greeted with a stony silence. We can get an even better idea of the reception Blair was in for from the text of the speech he never made was distributed to TUC delegates. For obvious reasons, this hardly got a mention in most of the papers next day, but for brazen effrontery it's hard to beat and about as well judged as his famous triumph over the Women's Institute.

Far from signalling concessions to the unions, as one or two papers had been primed to report, Blair effectively accused them of misrepresentation and inventing problems where they don't exist. He swore blind that 'nobody is talking about privatising the NHS or schools. Nobody. Nobody has said that the private sector is a panacea to sort out our public services. Nobody.'

In an even more surreal passage, well worth repeating verbatim, he informs us, 'As for the involvement of the private sector, I have a sharp sense of déjà vu...whenever change is proposed, there is a familiar pattern. First opponents of change construct an Aunt Sally, grossly misrepresenting it; then a great campaign is mounted against the Aunt Sally; then we defend ourselves; then those who created the Aunt Sally ask us why we keep talking about it. Then after the change goes through, people wonder what all the fuss was about.'

Call me a bleary mammal if you like, but it's very difficult to conjure up any recent train of events which would bear even a remote resemblance to this kind of pattern. Much more familiar has been that, once New Labour's automatons have cranked into gear, they will clatter on regardless of even the semblance of a rational debate, let alone organised resistance. Wonder what all the fuss was about with Railtrack, London Underground or any one of a dozen other PFI fiascos? You cannot be serious, man.

To expect that workers who have watched the entire spectrum of public services being systematically starved of finance for a good 25 years will suddenly jump for joy when seemingly bottomless heaps of public money start pouring into the coffers of private firms is surely either tremendously naive or just plain stupid. Blair would have emerged from a contribution like this having convinced most intelligent observers that a serious confrontation over PFI was now all but inevitable. In the agenda for this year's congress, resolutions opposing privatisation in all its various manifestations dominated the concerns of all the main unions and of ordinary members. The composite motion on privatisation runs to more than three pages of very specific objections, supported for the first time in as long as anybody can remember by every major union, up to and including New Labour's most loyal lieutenants in the AEEU.

In the wake of publication of the initially banned Deloitte and Touche report, which totally discredited the government's proposals for the tube, Ken Livingstone disclosed that the profit mark-up for lucky recipients of the government's largesse had been calculated to be in the region of an astonishing 35 percent. In other words, for every £100 of taxpayers' money put into PFI, £35 would go straight into contractors' pockets. This probably explains why bosses of firms which specialise in bidding for PFI contracts have been popping up all over the place demanding that the government holds its nerve. Most of these organisations have their sights set on the privatisation of just about anything that moves, and increasingly regard the public sector as the prime source of guaranteed revenue and just about as risk-free as it's possible to get in an otherwise precarious, dog eat dog environment.

According to a raft of recent half-term results, the chief executives of firms like Amey, Balfour Beatty, and Jarvis are more than happy with the direction things have been going in up to now--in fact they are chuffed as trousers. All that is needed from New Labour now is a bit more backbone, but they are confident that things are looking good. As Amey's chief executive, Brian Staples, puts it, 'Whilst the election period undoubtedly caused a temporary slowdown in the flow of business opportunities, the new government has given exceptionally clear messages regarding the expansion of the private sector's involvement in the provision of public services.' Furthermore, 'there has been a marked upturn in the flow of public sector bids since the election and we expect that situation to accelerate.'

It's not just that big business has a massive vested interest in all this--an entire machinery of government has by now been assembled to drive through the adoption of PFI, wherever and whenever they can get away with it. Every government department has its own PFI directorate, and organisations such as the New Local Government Network are not only funded by firms like Amec, Amey, Carillion, Kier, Jarvis and Serco, but stuffed with Blairite cronies. A founding member of the NLGN is Lord Bassam, an energetic Labour moderniser and until fairly recently, leader of Brighton and Hove council.

On the morning of the TUC conference John Edmonds of the GMB--by far the most impressive critic of PFI among the TUC old guard--donned a binman's jacket in Brighton in order to highlight the calamities which have befallen refuse collection in the city ever since the privateers took over. There have been so many changes of ownership since that some of the binmen are signed up to five different pension schemes. Unlike Blair, who would like us to believe we are seeing things, Edmonds is very clear: 'If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, then it's a duck.'

The Walrus

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